AMMAN -- Jordanians took to the streets this summer to protest water shortages and disruptions. Some demonstrators burned tires and blocked roads while others carried empty plastic gallons in the street symbolizing the scarcity of water in their homes.
Jordan is the world's fourth-poorest country in terms of water resources per capita, according to the World Bank. According to U.N. data, 80 percent of Jordanian territory is desert and only 5 percent of its land is considered arable.
In late summer, the government Water Authority had to hire guards to protect main water wells and infrastructure in remote regions against the theft of pumps and other parts.
"Every village and city in Jordan right now is only receiving water once a week," said Basem Telfah, secretary general of the Ministry of Water and Irrigation. "Some provinces are receiving water once every two or three weeks."
The water shortage took on an even more urgent aspect this week when the government announced that an anticipated long-term solution, a project that would have extracted 2.15 billion cubic meters, or nearly 570 billion gallons, of water from the Red Sea every year, was to be scaled back because of its high cost, estimated at more than $14 billion.
Against that background, Jordan is betting heavily on a major pipeline, the Disi Water Conveyance Project, which is expected to start carrying water next year to the capital, Amman, from deep underground sources in southern Jordan, which the country shares with Saudi Arabia.
The largest infrastructure project yet undertaken in Jordan, the project will cost an estimated $1.2 billion, according to the Disi project director, Bassam Saleh. But there is a serious drawback: Tests on some wells feeding the Disi pipeline have revealed high levels of radioactivity, raising public concern about the long-term health risks of drinking Disi water.
Government officials, scientists and water experts say they recognize the high levels of radioactivity in the water but they say that with proper treatment this should not pose a threat.
"We have to seriously study the degree of contamination and not lower it in our reports or standards or hide it," said Dureid Mahasneh, a former Jordan Valley authority chief.
Mr. Mahasneh said the radiation problem could be treated through a process called ion exchange or by dilution.
Radiation is present in the water in the form of radon, a radioactive, colorless gas, but dissipates when the water is exposed to air on the surface, said Bahjat Al Adwan, the head of the Jordanian Geologists Association.
The first controversy over the Disi project arose in 2009 when a research team of scientists from Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Israel and the United States published a report in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The report showed high radioactivity in water from 37 wells, used mostly for agriculture, in the Disi area.
Scientists and academics in Amman responded by organizing public discussions on the Disi project. Despite that, several conspiracy theories started to circulate.
People propagating conspiracy theories "thought the Israelis and the Americans had deceived the Jordanians," Mr. Mahasneh said. Still, he said, "it is known in science that water of deep aquifers in such areas do have radiation.
"We don't like the results, but can we handle it? Yes."
Measured radiation levels varied from well to well: Water experts and scientists say that more accurate data could be collected once all the 55 wells planned to supply the pipeline have been completed. They also point to the need to measure radiation levels after treatment.
"The question should not be if there is high radiation or not, but if the water is treatable," said Elias Salameh, professor of hydrology and hydrochemistry at the University of Jordan in Amman. "We need to drink water and we have no alternative."
Most of the Disi aquifer lies under Saudi Arabia, which is already using water from it.
In Aqaba, on Jordan's Red Sea coast, people have also been drinking water from the Disi for almost 20 years, with no apparent increase in the number of cancers.
"There has been no significant record" of abnormal cancer rates, Mr. Mahasneh said. Still, he added, "I admit that we need to investigate it further."
Meanwhile, the need to find additional supplies of water continues to grow more acute.
Jordan receives fewer than 40 days of rain per year on average, according to Mr. Telfah. The Jordanian population is increasing 3. 5 percent a year -- and in the past few months alone the population has ballooned with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.
The refugees are concentrated mostly in northern Jordan, where one camp alone holds more than 30,000.
The Disi pipeline was first proposed almost a decade ago but was long deemed too expensive. Construction finally began in 2007. Consumers will pay 95 U.S. cents to $1.40 per cubic meter of water.
"As a water expert I am worried" by the radiation risk, Mr. Mahasneh said. "But Jordanians are worried about having water or not having water. To be or not to be."
"Ask everyone in the streets and they are saying, 'Thank God we will have water next year,"' he said.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.